One of the most exciting moments in “Varda by Agnès” sees the legendary filmmaker return to the fields where she shot “Vagabond” just over three decades earlier. The long tracking shots that once elucidated the feeling that its heroine, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, drifted where the wind took her, are demystified by Varda, who in her inimitable enthusiasm for cinema describes the 13 shots from the film where she used a dolly, regally seated behind the camera as if she never left.
“It was interesting to show the audience a little of the technique and at the same time to have something a little bit fun,” says Varda’s daughter Rosalie, who produced “Varda by Agnès.” “And to always put [the idea of] sharing in the film. It was interesting to show [in this moment describing the filming of “Vagabond,”] it’s cold, it’s winter, it’s traveling, and there’s a little surprise at the end when you see Sandrine Bonnaire. It’s to always [engage] the audience and not like a teacher, but sharing ideas about cinema and how to be a filmmaker.”
Varda would sadly pass away shortly after “Varda by Agnès” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year at the age of 90, leaving Rosalie to be its chief ambassador as the film enters the world, but recently arriving in the States with concurrent special engagements this week at the Film Forum in New York and in Los Angeles at the Aero Theatre as part of a global tour, not only does the film carry on her spirit, it may be the strongest articulation of what she valued most – making it feel as if everyone had a movie inside of them waiting to be made and giving audiences the practical, unpretentious advice to bring it out. Like past autobiographies “The Beaches of Agnes” and “Faces Places,” “Varda by Agnès” brings the filmmaker’s work completely into the present tense with how her past films are weaved throughout a series of master classes Varda gives to create a new tapestry, with the memories of making such classics as “Cleo from 5 to 7” and “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” illuminating clips from the films that seem lively as ever, imbuing them with personal and political context that make them come alive in new ways.
“I was traveling with her [when] she was doing masterclasses around the world, each time speaking to the audience and showing excerpts of her films,” recalls Rosalie of the genesis for the project. “And looking at that, I thought it would be a good idea to do a kind of a documentary on her work to help audiences to understand more her films, the way she was working, and at the same time the body of work [because] she would not be able to travel anymore at [a certain] point, so the idea was to do something that could travel without her.”
While “Varda by Agnès” makes the world seem so big when Varda can be seen talking to students in a variety of international settings, the film reminds time and again how effortlessly the filmmaker could remove one barrier after another to raise empathy, whether it was filming right below her apartment in Paris in giving the star treatment to the shopkeepers of the small businesses that lined her block of Rue Daguerre or spending time in the late 1960s, accompanying her husband Jacques Demy to Los Angeles, to documenting the Black Panthers. Your jaw may drop throughout as she tells stories about the company she kept – photos of Eugene Ionesco, Salvador Dali and Alexander Calder line her home, and it turns out she can do a mean Andy Warhol impression – but she treats them as equals, not only to herself, but to an audience, and Rosalie, wanting to honor her mother’s egalitarian beliefs, knew that a standard top-down approach to imparting what she knew simply wouldn’t do and encouraged her towards a production that would step out of auditoriums and classrooms where Varda could easily converse with others. Creating such a dialogue would offer revelations not only for audiences, but for the filmmaker in looking back at her life.
“What was interesting is that we really realized that there was one part of her life, which was her [celluloid] films to 2000, and then in 2001, the digital came into her life,” says Rosalie. “It changed her cinema and she wanted to make more documentaries and artistic installations, so she realized that her body of work has really two big parts.”
In fact, one can likely trace the origins of “Varda by Agnès” back to well before the concept of it came to Rosalie when at the turn of the century Varda had been liberated by the ability to drop much of the elaborate and expensive machinery of the filmmaking process and began using digital cameras, with their compact size allowing her to approach people without intimidation as she once did as a still photographer. Seeing her take the canisters of film from her past to be put to use to build a house, which eventually toured museums around the world, is one of the most triumphant moments in “Varda by Agnès,” but to continue to create the spaces for people to see a reflection of themselves as much as her own distinct vision on the big screen through the films she made, a love for humanity that Rosalie has seen returned back to her mother as she’s taken the film on the road.
“It’s been nice because I see the empathy and the kindness and the love of people for Agnès’ films,” says Rosalie, who has dedicated herself full-time to being the CEO of her mother’s production company Ciné-Tamaris and will be making sure her archive is treated with great care. “I’m happy to help if I can help at my little level so the film can be shown, and for me [“Varda by Agnès”] is really a program that is education by the image. It’s really trying to give clues and help people to go to cinema to wonder, ‘What is an image?’ and to wonder, ‘What is cinema and how you do it?’ For me, it’s really [about] helping others, sharing with the audience — the young students and the people [in general], not just obliged to the cinephiles.”
Then again for Varda, life was cinema, so in her estimation, everyone can be expected to be a cinephile and for those who don’t consider themselves one before walking in, it is more than likely they will after leaving “Varda by Agnès.”